Class war pushes Pakistan close to tipping point of revolution as militias exploit poverty

A CLASS revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants has been engineered by the Taliban to help them advance deep into Pakistan.

The strategy cleared a path to power for the Taliban in the Swat Valley, where the government allowed Islamic law to be imposed earlier this month, and it carries broad dangers for the rest of Pakistan, particularly the militants' main goal, the populous heartland of Punjab province.

In Swat, accounts from those who have fled now make clear that the Taliban seized control by pushing out about four dozen landlords who held the most power.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

To do so, the militants organised peasants into armed gangs that became their shock troops, according to the residents, government officials and analysts.

The approach allowed the Taliban to offer economic spoils to people frustrated with lax and corrupt government even as the militants imposed a strict form of Islam through terror and intimidation.

"This was a bloody revolution in Swat," said a senior Pakistani official who oversees Swat, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the Taliban. "I wouldn't be surprised if it sweeps the established order of Pakistan."

Taliban militants who had seized a district just 60 miles from Pakistan's capital Islamabad began pulling out on Friday after the government warned that it would use force to evict them.

The withdrawal from Buner, if completed, eliminates the most immediate threat, but it is unlikely to quell fears that Islamabad is failing to deal forcefully with Islamist militants slowly expanding into the heart of the nuclear-armed country from lawless areas close to the Afghan border.

The top US military officer said that he was "extremely concerned" by the situation in Buner.

"We're certainly moving closer to the tipping point" where Pakistan could be overtaken by Islamic extremists, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said from Afghanistan, even as reports indicated a pullback was under way.

The Taliban's ability to exploit class divisions adds a new dimension to the insurgency and is raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Unlike India after independence in 1947, Pakistan maintained a narrow landed upper class that kept its vast holdings while its workers remained subservient, the officials and analysts said. Successive Pakistani governments have since failed to provide land reform and even the most basic forms of education and health care. Avenues to advancement for the vast majority of rural poor do not exist.

Analysts and other government officials warn that the strategy executed in Swat is easily transferable to Punjab, saying that the province, where militant groups are already showing strength, is ripe for the same social upheavals that have convulsed Swat and the tribal areas.

Mahboob Mahmood, a Pakistani-American lawyer and former classmate of President Barack Obama, said: "The people of Pakistan are psychologically ready for a revolution."

Sunni militancy is taking advantage of deep class divisions that have long festered in Pakistan, he said. "The militants, for their part, are promising more than just proscriptions on music and schooling," he said. "They are also promising Islamic justice, effective government and economic redistribution."

The Taliban strategy in Swat, an area of 1.3 million people with fertile orchards, vast plots of timber and valuable emerald mines, unfolded in stages over five years, analysts said.

The momentum of the insurgency has built in the past two years, as the Taliban, reinforced by seasoned fighters from the tribal areas with links to al-Qaeda, fought the Pakistani army to a standstill, said a Pakistani intelligence agent who works in the Swat region.

The insurgents struck at any competing point of power: landlords and elected leaders – who were usually the same people – and an underpaid and unmotivated police force, said Khadim Hussain, a linguistics and communications professor at Bahria University in Islamabad, the capital.

At the same time, the Taliban exploited the resentments of the landless tenants, particularly the fact that they had many unresolved cases against their bosses in a slow-moving and corrupt justice system, said Hussain and residents who fled the area.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Their grievances were stoked by a young militant, Maulana Fazlullah, who set up an FM radio station in 2004 to appeal to the disenfranchised. The broadcasts featured easy-to-understand examples using goats, cows, milk and grass.

By 2006, Fazlullah had formed a ragtag force of landless peasants armed by the Taliban, said Hussain and former residents of Swat.

At first, the pressure on the landlords was subtle. One landowner was pressed to take his son out of an English-speaking school offensive to the Taliban. Others were forced to make donations to the Taliban.

Then, in late 2007, Shujaat Ali Khan, the richest of the landowners, his brothers and his son, Jamal Nasir, the mayor of Swat, became targets.

After Shujaat Ali Khan, a senior politician in the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, narrowly missed being killed by a roadside bomb, he fled to London. A brother, Fateh Ali Mohammed, a former senator, left, too, and now lives in Islamabad. Nasir also fled.

Later, the Taliban published a "most wanted" list of 43 prominent names, said Muhammad Sher Khan, a landlord who is a politician with the Pakistan Peoples Party, and whose name was on the list.

All those named were ordered to present themselves to the Taliban courts or risk being killed, he said.

"When you know that they will hang and kill you, how will you dare go back there?" Khan, who is in hiding in Punjab, said in a telephone interview. "Being on the list meant 'Don't come back to Swat.'"

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

One of the main enforcers of the new order was Ibn-e-Amin, a Taliban commander from the same area as the landowners, called Matta. The fact that Amin came from Matta, and knew who was who there, put even more pressure on the landowners, Hussain said.

According to Pakistani news reports, Amin was arrested in August 2004 on suspicion of having links to al-Qaeda and was released in November 2006. Another Pakistani intelligence agent said Amin often visited a madrasa in North Waziristan, the stronghold of al-Qaeda in the tribal areas, where he apparently received guidance.

Each time the landlords fled, their tenants were rewarded. They were encouraged to cut down the orchard trees and sell the wood for their own profit, the former residents said. Or they were told to pay the rent to the Taliban instead of to their now absentee bosses.

Two emerald mines that were dormant over the past few years have reopened under Taliban control. The militants have announced that they will receive one-third of the revenues.

Since the Taliban fought the Pakistan military to a truce in Swat in February, the militants have deepened their approach and made clear who is in charge.

When provincial government bureaucrats visit Mingora, the capital of Swat, they must now follow the orders of the Taliban and sit on the floor, surrounded by Taliban bearing weapons, and in some cases wearing suicide bomber vests, the senior provincial official said.

In many areas of Swat the Taliban have demanded that each family give up one son for training as a Taliban fighter, said Mohammad Amad, executive director of a nongovernmental group, the Initiative for Development and Empowerment Axis.

A landlord who fled with his family last year said he received a chilling message last week. His tenants called him in Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier province, which includes Swat, to tell him his huge house was being demolished, he said in an interview here.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The most crushing news was about his finances. He had sold his fruit crop in advance, though at a quarter of last year's price.

But even that smaller financial yield would not belong to him, his tenants said, relaying the message from the Taliban. The buyer had been ordered to give the money to the Taliban.